Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nast never apologized for his monkeys
(And why this guy needs to)

I've been asked what I think about the current cartoon controversy, which I'm not going to describe here for fear of attracting a lot of Googlers. It has become a magnet for some really unacceptable and unproductive trollery.

Here's what I think: It was unintentional. And it was racist, not in the intent of the cartoonist, but in his utter cloth-eared insensitivity to the symbols he used. A sin of omission, not of commission. But a sin of omission still calls for a real apology, not a half-hearted pro forma statement, and certainly not one that ends with a self-promoting stab at one's critics.

If I back into your car, it may have been because I hate foreign cars and wanted to smash the fender on one, or it may have been because I didn't look in my rearview mirror.

If the former, no apology is needed. I did as I intended.

Thomas Nast routinely depicted the Irish as ape-like creatures. In the cartoon above, an "Irish Catholic Invader," complete with hobnailed boots, revolutionary lapel pin, gun in belt and bottle in back pocket, dictates terms to (Democratic) candidate Horace Greeley, while the priest listens in to make sure he gets it right and a proud Saxon lad stands fast to protect (Protestant) religion in the schools. And in the Nast cartoon here, an Irish monkey girl clings to her rosary beads and waves a nationalist flag while she and her little monkey-children friends kick the (King James) Bible around the school playground.

Despicable, but boy-jayzus, didn't Thomas Nast say what he meant and then stick to his guns? I can hate his work and still admire both his artistry and his tenacity.

But this fellow in New York didn't mean to be offensive. He's like the driver who didn't look in his rearview mirror.

Only the fellow in the car likely understands that drivers are supposed to look in their rearview mirrors. He's going to apologize, not for his bad intentions, but for his mistake. He's not likely to say, "I'm sorry if you feel I damaged your car. Except that I'd like to add, to all the people who have criticized my driving in the past, that I don't care what any of you think of it now."

Professional commentators have an obligation to understand the tools of their work, and, for a political cartoonist, symbols matter. And symbols can take on different connotations depending on the factors surrounding them.

Example: You could draw a cartoon showing the governors lining up outside the White House to get stimulus money for their states, and hang a pawnbroker's three-ball symbol over the portico, suggesting that the governors were desperate enough to give up things or ... however you felt it captured the issue. And whatever the merit of that commentary, there would be nothing offensive about it.

Unless, instead of Barack Obama, the president were Joe Lieberman, in which case you or one of your editors should be bright enough to say, "Oh, wait, no, let's re-think this ..."

And you need to do that because people will misinterpret your intentions and because they will be offended and distracted by something you didn't mean. If your intention is to make a statement, then you don't want that statement derailed by what people will see instead. This applies any time you put something in a cartoon or an editorial that could make it misfire, even if it were only a matter of confusing readers rather than offending them. But especially if it were a matter of offending them for no good reason.

When the internal system fails, when something like this gets through the checks-and-balances and is published and draws fire, you need to man-up and take your licks. You don't apologize for your intentions, because they weren't evil.

You apologize for your carelessness. You don't apologize for the fact that the guy values his car. You apologize for not looking in the rearview mirror, or for misjudging the distance. You apologize because you screwed up.

Here's how a man handles unintentional offense, from Joe Klein's 1980 biography, "Woody Guthrie: A Life." It's about Woody's early career hosting and performing on a radio show in Los Angeles:

On October 20, 1937, Woody received a letter from a listener that read in part, "You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your 'Nigger Blues.' I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person ... of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today." Woody was mortified. It was a word he'd used casually all his life. It was a word he'd used lightly, jokingly, without ever quite realizing its full implications. He took to the air immediately with an apology. He read the letter aloud, promised not to use the word again, and ripped all the "nigger" songs out of his book.

By the way, I often counsel people who are thinking about writing letters to the editor (or to anyone else for that matter) that a soft, hurt tone is more effective than harsh anger. But those of us with words like "editor" in our titles are supposed to be able to stick our egos in our back pockets and deal with people even when they are too angry to address us in that soft, hurt tone.

We're paid to exercise good judgment, both in what we put in the paper and in how we handle the response to it.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis, Mike. I'm tired of hearing "I'm sorry if you were offended by..." instead of a good, old fashioned apology. That's what was so refreshing about Obama's "I screwed up" approach. Hope we'll begin hearing more of that from people but I won't hold my breath.
-Sis in Sleepy Hollow

ronnie said...

An absolutely excellent essay. As someone whose career has involved watching person after person screw up apologizing for racist comments or actions, I couldn't agree more with your analysis.

Dann said...

Hi Mike,

Your closing thoughts made me think about our former editorial page editor and his successor.

I once wrote a "letter to the editor" ripping an editorial position the paper had taken that ended up causing an interesting exchange with the former. It turns out that he basically agreed with me, but the publisher had taken a different view of things and the editor had to do a credible job of presenting that point of view.

It wasn't surprising that he did.

We exchanged email on and off over the years and now I have a modest relationship with his successor.

Both men seem to possess the ability you describe of being able to handle people when emotions run high, tempers run short, and manners run out.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing this. Would that the recent LiveJournal kerfuffle over depicting black people in fiction had had had apologies rather than apologists.

Mary said...

Thanks for your commentary - Maybe I'm slower than some but I didn't get the editorial cartoon in the first place. And I certainly didn't get the hoopla over it. Now I better understand what was intended vs. reality...The reality is an editor dropped the ball. And, no one at the paper has any.


Christopher Baldwin said...

Well put.

Mike said...

I think that what has upset me more than anything else in this kerfuffle is the hoards of people who gather to say, "Dammit, we'll tell you what is offensive and what isn't? How dare you say you're offended?" At first, I thought they were simply trolls (and some are), but after reading post after post, it's worse than that: They appear to be sincere. These folks don't get it on a level that would, in all honesty, make Jesus weep.

Mark Jackson said...

Yes, Mike - if denial is a form of cowardice Holder is right.